Oscar Brand, Presidential Campaign Songs, 1789-1996

Yancey Strickler

By Yancey Strickler

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

From Doris Kearns Goodwin to Sarah Vowell, esteemed presidential scholars recognize that the one true insight to a president's character is through his campaign theme song, and often the wisdom of the choice portends the very nature of the presidency itself. Consider, for example, the cases of Hoover ("If He's Good Enough for Lindy," even though Lindbergh, of course, was infamous for his low standards), Van Buren ("Rockabye, Baby" reflecting his sleepy term from 1837-1841) and even Nixon ("Buckle Down With Nixon," reflecting an administration under siege): would their presidencies have fared better with different messages? While this debate still rages with some, among true experts, there is little doubt that these men were doomed not by character flaw or poor policy, but music and lyrics. Where was Will.I.Am when they needed him?

Everything you always wanted to know about US presidents but forgot to sing.

Among those whose administrations are revered, raw braggadocio is common. FDR's obliquely titled hillbilly stomp "Franklin D. Roosevelt's Back Again" declares, "Since Roosevelt's been reelected/ Shine liquor's been corrected," a campaign boast that no one could lose with — aspiring pols, take note! And who could forget James Monroe's playground boast from 1816 "Monroe Is the Man"? Who says Missouri was a compromise? Oh, snap!

Other presidents gave the electorate uncomfortable windows into their own insecurities. Remember Benjamin Harrison's Woody Allen-esque opening rejoinder, "What's the matter with Harrison?/ He's all right"? And who could forget Taft's very public (and pre-Oprah) weight anguish "Get on a Raft with Taft"? Americans could not help but to feel the Ohio native's pain.

On a strict musical level, no one can match Truman's sweet "I'm Just Wild About Harry," our 33rd president's well-recognized twee side coming through clear and strong (the "S" in his name actually stood for "Sarah," in honor of Sarah Records). But his was really the last, great campaign song. (Don't get us started on Bush using Guthrie or Clinton using Fleetwood Mac.) Aside the unforgivable omission of Chester A. Arthur (couldn't they turn up the lyrics to "Over His Dead Body"?), this collection does an excellent job of covering all aspects of US presidential history. Toss away those textbooks, children: this right here is everything you need to know.